Dame Vivienne Westwood is an English fashion designer and businesswoman whose early designs helped shape the look of the punk rock movement.
Westwood was born Vivienne Isabel Swire in 1941 in Tintwistle, England. Her parents, Gordon and Dora Swire had married two years previously, two weeks after the outbreak of World War II. Westwood attended Glossop Grammar School, graduating in 1958. As a teenager, she would customise her school uniform to create the fashionable pencil skirt of the time and make many of her own clothes, including sleeveless shifts created with exactly one yard of fabric.
At the age of 17, she and her family moved to Harrow and she enrolled at the Harrow School of Art at Westminster University for a term, studying fashion and silversmithing. She dropped out, claiming that she ”didn’t know how a working-class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world”. She had grown up in a part of the country that had “had grown up in the Industrial Revolution,“ and she “didn’t know about art galleries…never seen an art book, never been to the theatre.”
Westwood found work at a local factory, before eventually enrolling at teaching training college. She studied to, and then became a Primary School teacher while also creating jewellery to be sold at a stall on Portobello Road. In 1962, Westwood met her future husband Derek Westwood, a Hoover factory apprentice, in Harrow. They married in July of that year, with Westwood wearing a wedding dress that she had created herself. A year later they had a son, Benjamin. The marriage lasted until 1965, when Westwood met Malcolm McLaren. McLaren was an art student and liked the idea of ‘using culture as a way of making trouble’ and the fact that to him, rock ’n’ roll and music went hand in hand.
In 1971, McLaren opened a boutique called Let It Rock at 430 King’s Road. Westwood left teaching to join him in this business venture, inspired by the fact that he had introduced her to a world of creative freedom and the influence art had on the political landscape. In 1975, the shop was renamed ‘Sex’ and a year later, this changes to ’Seditionaries’. Westwood created the clothing sold there. It was inspired by bikers, fetishists and prostitutes, she fused BDSM fashion, bondage gear, safety pins, razor blades and bicycle chains with traditional elements of Scottish design like tartan fabric. She reinterpreted historical 17th- and 18th-century cloth-cutting principles in her designs, and the result was unique and shocking. The shop came to be synonymous with the punk movement, especially as McLaren had formed the Sex Pistols and dressed them in Westwood’s designs. One of the shop assistants, Jordan, had such a shocking aesthetic with her rubber clothes, beehive hairstyle and theatrical make-up that she was put in first class on her commute to work for her own protection.
In the early 80’s, Westwood began to see herself as a fashion designer and wanted to move away from the punk aesthetic. The shop went through another period of change, coming to be known as it’s lasting name, World’s End. Westwood created a collection of clothes inspired by romance and history and in 1981, Pirate, McLaren and Westwood’s first catwalk collection was show at Olympia. The clothes were unisex, taking inspiration from an age of highwaymen, dandies and buccaneers. She continued to create themed collections, including Savages and Nostalgia of Mud in 1982 and Punkature in 1983. McLaren and Westwood expanded their business in 1982, opening a second shop called Nostalgia of Mud. The shop was described as ‘astounding, totally unique in the retail world’. In 1983, McLaren and Westwood collaborated on their final collection, Witches. Westwood’s last collection shown featuring the World’s End label was Clint Eastwood in early 1984 – 1985.
Westwood continued to look into the past for inspiration, historical research had led her to believe that clothes were about ‘changing the shape of the body, about having a restriction’. She now wanted to ‘make things that fitted’. She took inspiration from the ballet Petrushka and designed the mini-crini, an abbreviated version of the Victorian crinoline. Her subsequent Harris Tweed collection celebrated her love affair with traditional English clothing and the ‘Stature of Liberty’ corsets and tailored ‘Savile’ jackets became Westwood classics. She has continued to create inspirational and influential collections of clothing which retain her unique aesthetic.
In 1989, Westwood controversially appeared on the cover of Tatler dressed as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was Prime Minister at the time. She wore a suit that Thatcher had ordered by not yet received and the stunt reportedly infuriated Thatcher. Westwood was named British Designer of the Year in both 1990 and 1991. In 1990, she launched an exclusive menswear collection in Florence and opened ‘The Vivienne Westwood shop’ in London. A year later, Westwood was awarded an OBE from Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, she also began designing wedding dresses. In 2006, her OBE was advanced to a DBE in the 2006 New Year’s Honours List “for services to fashion”. She has also been awarded the gong for Outstanding Achievement in Fashion Design at the British Fashion Awards and a special commendation for her contribution to design from HRH the Duke of Edinburgh at a ceremony for the Prince Philip Designers Prize.
Westwood is involved in many political causes, she joined forces with British civil rights group Liberty in 2005, creating t-shirts and baby wear to raise funds for the organisation. She campaigned at the biggest the biggest Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament demonstration in ten years in 2008. She dedicated one of her 2013 collections to Chelsea Manning, showing images of her with the word ’TRUTH’ under her pictures. She has also campaigned for ‘Active Resistance’, releasing a manifesto called Active Resistance to Propaganda in 2007 to speak out against the “drug of consumerism”. She has also campaigned for climate change, speaking about her concerns at a talk at the V&A in 2009 and cutting off her hair in 2014 to highlight it’s dangers.